January thaw

    It’s hard not to be at a loss about what to do outside when we’re hit with an unseasonably mild day in January- on the weekend, no less- which begs us to go outside and do something, anything, in the garden.

    In my case, thing number one was move a pile of leaves that have been reproaching me from the middle of the yard since November. The grass underneath the pile had rotted away, leaving just a few blanched and crooked blades where the suffocating leaves had been. The grass may recover, but it looks gone enough that I’ll reseed it in the spring.

    Thing number two was to start weeding. The mild winter, and the unseasonable warmth of the last few weeks, has given cool-weather annuals a head start. In my garden I have a groundcover of henbit and hairy bittercress that both pull up easily when the ground is as soft as it is now. Since these annuals are immature and haven’t flowered or set seed, it’s fine to compost them.

    Thing number three had me stumped. It feels too early to move the shrubs I planted in the wrong place last spring, likewise to divide the perennials on the sidewalk border. January isn’t the traditional month for heavy pruning, except maybe this year it is? I cut down the stalks of a few blackened perennials, and decided that if nature decides to give us another mild weekend I’m going to start pruning roses. The rule of thumb for this task is to undertake it when the forsythia blooms, but this year it feels like all bets are off.

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    The garden is starting to wake up- or did it ever go to sleep? Is the scabiosa bud a holdover from fall, or a super-early spring visitor? Likewise the wallflower, pictured, that is covered in buds, some beginning to open. Are you late, or early? The candytuft which usually blooms with the tulips already has buds, but then again I saw the tips of some tulips themselves poking through the ground.

    Nature has a remarkable ability to hit pause when it needs to. If cold weather does come back, the candytuft will wait and the tulips will quit growing, until something signals spring’s true advance. A mild January like this one shows that most plants don’t look at the calendar, just at the weather when deciding what to do next.

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